Midweek fixtures: A tribute to the Oxford United Ultras

It’s not unusual to forget something when you move house; the bread maker in the loft or the cat. When Oxford United moved from The Manor to The Kassam, we forgot to pack our soul.

Rewind.

Rageonline tells me it was January 2006 about 2.40pm, we were playing Darlington. I was sitting in my car facing the East Stand. It was cold so I took a punt at parking in the car park, when I got there, I had my pick of the spaces. Nobody had bothered to turn up. We lost 2-0.

Two weeks later we were playing Rochdale. The mood was sombre, the atmosphere was dead. We didn’t know it, but the Kassam-era was coming to an end. In a few weeks fans would be storming the stadium in protest; days after Nick Merry and Jim Smith would stride out as the public face of our new owners.

Amidst all the bleakness, spontaneously, the East Stand struck up a heavy rhythm – clapping, chanting and banging seats – it was loud and unrelenting, completely at odds with the meandering on the pitch.

For the rest of the season, although we were tanking on the pitch, the fans started reclaiming their club. At the Manor, we inherited it from our forebears; it’s stories, the giant killings, promotions, the players; all soaked into the walls of the old place. We left it all behind; we became consumers, even though what we were consuming tasted increasingly sour. The fans had to reimagine its relationship with the club.

This wasn’t the start of the Oxford United Ultras, who announced recently they were folding after ten years, but the idea of fan participation was starting to stir. Despite relegation to the Conference, the embers of that idea remained. A giant flag was purchased and unfurled in time for every crushing defeat and false dawn. It was a gallant attempt at creating atmosphere, but the problem was that the noise from the East Stand was muffled and nobody could clap when holding it up.

In 2007, Aldershot Town visited the Kassam. It was early in the season and they were flying. Their fans had hold of their destiny – they turned up in huge numbers, festooned with flags and balloons; a wall of red and blue, willing them to succeed. It was a carnival of the like I’d never seen before. In stark contrast, Arthur Gnohere handled comically in the box conceding a penalty. They won 3-2, then went on to win promotion back to the Football League.

It was a low, but things were looking up. Chris Wilder took over in 2008 and went on a run that nearly got us into the play-offs. We were docked five points for playing an ineligible player, exactly the number of points we fell short by. The injustice of it all ignited something.

The summer was a blur – Wilder brought together a squad full of flair and aggression. Constable, Green, Midson, Clarke, Creighton; names that would become legends.

Off the field things were moving; fan groups, partly fuelled by social media, were emerging, planning and plotting. First pre-arranged areas for home games, then flags, then more. Many of the groups died, or merged, it takes energy to turn pub dreams into reality. There’s an irony about ultra movements; they seem unruly and anti-social, but in reality they have to be organised and structured, funding has to exist, people have to do things to do things.

I’m not keen on military analogies, but we became like an invading army. We had James Constable, Mark Creighton and Adam Murray controlling things on the pitch and a cacophony of flags and banners filling the away end, the air was filled with yellow and blue smoke bombs, our relative size in the Conference had been a burden, now it was becoming an asset.

I’ve said before that I know players rarely support the team they play for, but I want their time at Oxford to be the best of their career. Lower league football can be unforgiving and spartan, the joy of playing with the backing of the Ultras must have been immense.

We swept to promotion on a sea of optimism and a riot of colour. Back in the Football League, despite a couple of memorable wins over Swindon, but the fun started to dwindle. The flags were still waved; banners appeared at the back of the stand. There was something, but it was a battle to keep the energy going, particularly at home.  

In 2016, though, the movement peaked. The year kicked off with the now fabled Austrian tour, it is easy to forget that we drew 0-0 playing in the previous season’s kit with no sponsor. What is memorable is the crowd, the bewildered looks on the faces of the players at the fervent optimism. Without that, the tour would have been meaningless.  

The plan for the season was uncompromising; we weren’t just going for promotion, we were going for everything. In the JPT we were once again drawn against Swindon. Although they were in a division higher, the balance of power was shifting. The aim was not to beat them heroically as we had in 2011 and 2012, we were going to dominate them on and off the field.

Something special was promised by the Ultras, though the details were kept under-wraps, immediately before the game it wasn’t evident what was planned. As the players emerged from the tunnel, from the top of the East Stand, a flag was unbundled and passed down to the front.

The ambition was staggering; it stretched from the top of the East Stand to the bottom, featuring a giant, angry ox with a robin impaled on one of its horns. I am rarely stopped in my tracks at football; years of following the same club and the same routine does that to you, but this was nothing short of breathtaking.

At the Swindon end, a banner was meekly held aloft, some streamers disappeared into the night sky; we’d won and hadn’t even kicked off.

The season was a blur; against Swansea another display in the East Stand, criminally ignored by live TV cameras, then for the final game against Wycombe, another.

In between, the back wall of the East Stand was festooned with banners featuring a myriad of opaque cultural references – Time for Heroes (acknowledged by The Libertines on Match of the Day), Always and forever, Remember 86, That Sweet City. Even for run-of-the-mill games, the ultras brought life to our soulless home by quoting Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.

Promotion brought another reward – yet another pair of derbies against Swindon Town. A critical aspect of any victory is the ability to surprise; following the giant flag, the Robins knew something was coming. Whatever was being planned, the Ultra’s response needed to be beyond good.

Again, a plan was hatched, preparation was needed. The night before, the Ultras gave every seat in the East Stand a flag. It must have taken hours. The morning of the game was miserable and drizzly, but there was a bigger problem; a great section of the flags had been removed. Swindon fans? Kids? The plan had been scuppered. Or had it?

This is where the Ultras’ work is underestimated; rather than just giving in, they were back in the stadium repositioning the flags, removing the broken ones, making sure everything was right.

And just before 3pm, the effect was heart stopping, a sea of colour another crushing blow before a ball was kicked.

There were so many other displays – against Manchester City, for our 125th birthday, but in the background, politics was playing its part. All displays are going to test health and safety rules, if they don’t, then they’re probably not worth doing. The club started moving the goalposts, the Ultras felt like they were being taken for granted.

Perhaps they just ran out of energy and money, but it seems like The Ultras, the visual spirit of the club, became a pawn in ongoing arguments between the club and the stadium company. Like a divorcing couple using their kids to emotionally blackmail each other. Just after their 10th birthday, it was announced the Ultras would be retiring their flags at the end of the season, but another altercation with the stadium company finally killed their spirit and they closed.

If the Oxford United Ultras’ only contribution was to bring personality back to the club after it had been stripped bare by its owners, that would have been achievement enough. But they grew so much beyond that, they created defining moments in the modern history of the club.

And then some; we live in a world of corporate football, where atmospheres are paid for and organised by billionaire owners. People applaud fan movements, and visual spectacles, if there was a better, more authentic, more spectacular, more ambitious fan group in the country than the Oxford United Ultras, I’ve yet to see them.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Manchester City 3

I like the Premier League; I get all the arguments about the obscene amounts of money being thrown around and the effect foreigners have on the England team, but in the end it’s all a bit of a blur of numbers and names and I’ve long given up trying to keep up. Instead, I quite enjoy the spectacle; the games, the goals, Match of the Day and in a world where you’re lucky to have two teams with a chance of a domestic league title, the fact there are five or six who can win it, the competitiveness.

I even quite like Manchester City – I admire their dedication to excellence and recognise that their dominance is the result of relentless professionalism not a god given gift. I think they probably do good things for the women’s game and local community too. If you’re going to buy your way to success, at least they’ve  done it with a degree of class.

But theirs is not the same football I watch. Like one of those genetic curiosities where man is more closely related to a fish than a monkey, if you were to pick apart the DNA of the lower leagues, you’d probably find it had more in common with club rugby than with the Premier League. And it’s not less valid because of it.

So, what did we watch on Tuesday? Who knows? Nobody could really calibrate it – some said that if, by some miracle, we contrived to win, then Karl Robinson would take all the undeserved glory, if we got obliterated, then it would crush us for the rest of the season. They probably wouldn’t play a strong team anyway. We practically talked ourselves into it being a non-event.

Robinson’s response was curious – we’re playing the best team in the country and one of best in the world, so we field a weakened team. Was that to avoid the impact of a crushing defeat on morale? To make us appear as blasé as them and therefore, a little bit like them? Did he, like us, not really want the game to happen? Or did he just want to turn it into a debacle against which he couldn’t be judged? It just made the whole spectacle harder to understand.

The mismatch was so huge, it was no longer a game of football in the sense that we understand it. It was like a fight between a lion and a goldfish. The lion eviscerates the goldfish, nobody is surprised. It’s superior, but that doesn’t mean the lion can live under water. Or something. It was not ‘a match’ – as there was nothing to match them with us. It proved nothing, it was just, a thing. An exhibition. A piece of benign mid-week light entertainment.

The club seemed to confuse the size of our stadium with the size of our opponents. Dire warnings of parking and traffic chaos meant people like me turned up earlier than they would for any other game, even though it was a crowd size very similar to games against the likes of Swansea, Newcastle and Northampton. As a result, I was there when the City coach turned up flanked by Mercedes people-carriers full of, what? Secret service agents? They don’t have those when Accrington turn up.

At the back of the South Stand was some multi-directional high tech contraption set up by City which presumably was monitoring the players and their movements. For City, perhaps this was just an exercise in data capture – I assume they can now predict that Nicolas Otamendi will have a headache a week next Tuesday based on the way he traps the ball on his thigh. This is not the same football we play.

Nobody expected us to even come close to winning, so the tension of expectation was completely absent. Even our display, as impressive as it was, didn’t stir the loins like the unveiling of the giant flag against Swindon. It was all very polite and deferential. The Guardian said we were ‘outclassed’ in the way the lion ‘outclassed’ the goldfish.

So, if the result wasn’t the point of the exercise, did we learn anything? The game felt like one of those stress tests that new tech products go through so you can boast to your friends they’ll work even if you lived on Venus, which you won’t, rendering the boast both impressive, and meaningless.

We were given tests which we’ll never experience against the likes of Bradford or Southend. We were tested on how we would defend a 70 yard cross field pass to a man with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. At one point they were passing it around the back line, with every pass they’d move forward pushing us back while their midfield darted in between our legs offering options and generally bamboozling us. It was like the crusher scene in Star Wars – slow, relentless; an impressive show of force, but not one we’ll come across in League 1.

But, we coped pretty well; we weren’t humiliated like many feared, we showed that we do have discipline, something that’s been so absent this season. We probably saw the future of English football, until he disappears without trace under a pile of more fully developed expensive foreigners bought from the Bundesliga and elsewhere. If we apply ourselves in the league like we did on Tuesday, then we’ll be OK once we’re back with our own. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, but no more than that.

Northwich Victoria 1 Yellows 2

I liked Soccer AM; I was aware of the corporate cock-sucking of Lovejoy et al, but forgave it for its knockabout fun. It was no surprise when I was bought Lovejoy’s book for my birthday.

I paraphrase, but Lovejoy thinks football is brilliant. He thinks going to a game is brilliant, playing is brilliant, football on TV is brilliant, football in the pub is brilliant, he thinks the Premiership is brilliant, Wembley is brilliant, the money is brilliant. It’s all brilliant brilliant brilliant.

This is where Lovejoy and I depart because football is not all brilliant and nor should it be. No amount of brillianting will convince me otherwise. Observing Monday’s hyperbole surrounding the closing transfer window filled me with a chill that wasn’t brilliant at all.

The correspondents on SKY were salivating over it all. Without a ball being kicked Manchester City went from jokey bit-part players to Europe’s most financially powerful club. A journey that took Manchester United some 30 years and, perhaps 2000+ games, to achieve.

“We’ve got Robinho” sang the Manchester City fans on SKY Sports News. Actually THEY’VE got Robinho, I thought, you have fuck all. Amongst the grinning and brouhaha no one questioned whether it was actually a good thing or not. Is football just about admiring the playground show-offs and gloating about your vicariously acquired riches? It’s all just entertainment, some will say, but these are people with the power to pull countries in and out of recession. Now they’re at the helm of a constitutionally weak, culturally significant institution. People think I admire this gluttony because I like football and football is about greed. It feels like I’m being implicated in a kind of cultural terrorism.

Well, not in my name.

Football is about hoping, one day, you’ll actually get to the end of a season and feel you’ve got something out of it. It’s about finding out that your new striker actually scores goals. It’s about struggle and torment and worry and joy and never really know what you’re going to get next. My football is grinding out a 2-1 win away from home and basking in the warm glow of sheer fucking relief it gives you.